I have a number of posts on my blog about upgrading your existing halogen bulbs to either HID (Xenon) bulbs for headlights or fog lights, as well as a number of articles on upgrading to LED bulbs for smaller things like DRLs, Reverse Bulbs, and City Lights. A commenter recently asked why I recommend HID vs LED setups depending on the bulb, which is a great question! Both LED and HID headlights have gained popularity in recent years because they offer the appeal of advance technology and high performance, as compared to traditional halogen bulbs. Whereas halogen bulbs more closely resemble the type of household bulbs that you would have at home, both LED and HID headlights use sophisticated technology to light your path. Both are good options for your vehicle, but there are some differences bear noting when choosing between the two. Let’s look at LED vs HID headlights and compare the two options throughout the rest of this post to understand when one option is better than the other.
Benefits of HID Lights
Also known as xenon headlights, HID (or high intensity charge bulbs) feature an arc of electricity created by electricity travelling between two tungsten electrodes inside the bulb, which is filled with xenon gas. The result is a brighter light than you get from a tungsten element alone. To put that into perspective, you can get about 3,000 lumens (a unit measuring the amount of light emitted per second) from an HID bulb, whereas a halogen bulb emits just about half that amount, for a difference of 90 square meters vs. 30 square meters of illumination. That results in better night driving visibility and increased safety, even in bad weather. HID bulbs also use much less energy than halogen bulbs and last much longer than halogen bulbs – 2000 hours of illumination as opposed to just 450. On the downside, HID lights are rather expensive when compared to other types of lights and because they are uniquely shaped, it can be difficult to retrofit an older car with these bulbs.
- Far brighter light, and a cooler color than halogen
- Far less energy consumption than halogen
- Longer lasting that halogen
- Bigger shape than halogen (may not fit)
- Needs a projector lens to focus beam or may blind oncoming drivers
- Requires a ballast to power it (needs room to mount)
- May need a coding update to your ECU
Benefits of LED lights
LED bulbs are relatively new on the automotive lighting scene, but they have gained huge popularity in recent years. LEDs are electrical conductors that emit light when they are turned on by way of an electrical circuit. The circuit is either switched on or it is off; these bulbs do not require a heating up period. One of the biggest advantages in favor of LED headlights is that they have very few parts. That means they can be made quite small and can withstand any vibrations and bumps that may occur on rough roads. They, too, consume less energy than halogen bulbs and are very long-lasting, sometimes up to tens of thousands of hours. One of the most popular reasons for choosing LED bulbs is that they come in many different colors of light.
- Brighter than halogen, but less bright than HID
- More color options than halogen or HID, option for strobe lighting
- Less energy consumption than halogen
- Longer lasting than halogen
- Smaller, easier to fit shape than HID
- No ballast required
- May require resistors to avoid a “bulb out” error on dash
- Light does not project as far
Using LEDs for the main headlight beam
I was recently encouraged by a blog reader to reconsider my stance on LEDs as a main headlight beam…LEDs have come a long way since I originally wrote this, and more and more options are on the market making LEDs worth reconsidering for your high or low beam headlight bulbs. I picked up a kit on Amazon for roughly $32 that had great reviews, so I went for it. My previous opinion was that LEDs didn’t work well for high/low headlight beams because they didn’t throw light far enough…but like I said, the technology has come a long way since the cheapo LED bulbs of the past, and manufacturers are now specifically designing LED bulbs intended to be used for the high/low beam bulbs for your car.
The LEDs I picked up for my wife’s Ford Focus have built in fans to keep them cool, making them a lot larger than the halogen bulbs that came with the car. Despite the added size, they fit inside the housings just fine, although I had to poke some holes in the dust boots so they don’t overheat. After driving around with them for a little bit, they don’t seem to be getting too hot to be concerned although you can hear the fans running which is a little unusual at first. There is no need for a ballast like HIDs which is nice, they just plug into the OEM wiring and you’re good to go. Install is a breeze, and the color is very similar to HIDs giving you that same european/luxury look.
I knew they’d look good in the housing (like all LEDs do), but I was happy that the light output was great too. My wife’s Ford Focus doesn’t have projector beams, but despite that the light still travels pretty well with a decent enough cut-off not to blind anyone. I think HIDs still throw the light just a bit further (especially with a good projector lens), but I think the LEDs throw light just as far as the halogens and also illuminate that field of vision better, so net-net it’s a huge upgrade from your OEM halogen bulbs.
When to Pick HID over LED?
LEDs are cheaper, smaller, don’t need a special ballast or projector lens, and have more color options, which makes them the ideal choice for replacing smaller bulbs like turn signals, reverse lights, or reverse lights…but for lights that you need a longer field of vision, like your headlights, fog lights, or a separate spot light (i.e. on a roof or separate light rail) it’s a closer race. The price of LED bulbs versus HID kits is about the same now, making price no longer a concern. If you want something simple, the LED kit needs no external ballasts and can be plug & play – so keep it simple. The HID kits are still my preference for high/low beam if you have a projector lens to focus the super intense light of HIDs, but without the projector lens I’d recommend going with LED bulbs instead.
What LED or HID Kit to Buy?
Both LED and HID kits are about the same price, around $30-40 on Amazon with free Prime shipping. There are more expensive kits out there for both LED and HID, but I’ve used both kits at the $30 price range and never had issues. My preferred brands are XENTEC for HID and LASFIT for LED. You can find (affiliate) links to these kits below, simply select the right bulb size you need (whatever the OEM bulb is that you’re replacing) and select the color for the HID (4,300K is stock, anything higher is more blue in color – I like 6,000).
TL;DR – LEDs are great for nearly any bulb. Stick with HIDs if your car has a projector lens to focus the intense light of HIDs, choose LEDs if you’re upgrading from halogens and don’t have a projector lens.